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The hardscrabble lives of traditional farming families and the harsh splendor of the isolated West Yorkshire landscape provide the evocative backdrop to a poignant story of love and self-discovery in British writer-director Francis Lee’s accomplished first feature, God’s Own Country. Graced by its refreshingly frank treatment of gay sexuality, its casually expressive use of nudity and its eloquent depiction of animal husbandry as a contrasting metaphor for the absence of human tenderness, this is a rigorously naturalistic drama that yields stirring performances from the collision between taciturn demeanors and roiling emotional undercurrents.
While it’s too easy to predict Lee’s film being simplistically dubbed Brokeback Moors, that comparison to Ang Lee’s modern classic of gay drama isn’t entirely facile, even if the social context, the contemporary setting and the highly specific sense of place make this heartfelt yet unsentimental film quite distinct. For one thing, God’s Own Country ends not with the lingering music of tragedy but on a note of hopeful wholeness. It deserves to find a receptive audience, even beyond the core gay constituency.
At the story’s center is Johnny Saxby (Josh O’Connor), a repressed gay man in his early twenties who anesthetizes his loneliness with nightly drinking binges and the occasional cold bout of casual sex. He lives a joyless existence with his grandmother Deirdre (Gemma Jones) and father Martin (Ian Hart), who has suffered a debilitating stroke that leaves Johnny responsible for the considerable workload on their sheep farm. It’s suggested that, along with his physical condition, Martin’s bitterness is as much the result of being abandoned by his wife, who couldn’t take the rigors of rural life. Nan isn’t exactly a fount of great warmth either, and their disapproval of Johnny’s boozing adds to the general mood of dourness.
With subtle strokes and subdued revelations, Lee’s screenplay lays out the development of an unexpected relationship that changes Johnny in ways that are painful, profound and ultimately freeing. At first, he’s resistant to his father’s insistence on hiring a temporary worker to help during lambing season. And he makes no effort to be friendly when Gheorghe (Alec Secareanu) arrives, taunting the handsome Romanian migrant by calling him a gypsy. But when the two young men are sent off to work a paddock up on the remote moors, requiring them to camp out overnight in a stone shelter, hostility gives way to physical attraction.
Lee and cinematographer Joshua James Richards make skillful atmospheric use of the rugged hill country, which looks gloomy even in spring, creating a melancholy mood and a somber canvas for the spontaneous eruption of desire between the two strangers. Their first sexual tussle is combative, angry, their naked bodies smeared in grass and mud, like animals. But while they revert to a circumspect mutual distance during the long daylight working hours, their nights together gradually give way to gentler sexual exploration.
O’Connor is terrific at conveying Johnny’s guardedness and bruised solitude; the lingering stares he shoots at Gheorghe reveal not just attraction but also an intuitive emotional response to the Romanian’s soulful way with the animals, the land, even the stone fencing. Secareanu is equally effective. Without a lot of over-explanatory dialogue, a beautiful, almost silent exchange happens, in which Gheorghe reveals his deep-rooted ties to rural life while Johnny starts reevaluating his own inheritance in a less resentful light.
When Martin has a second, near-fatal stroke, Deirdre remains at the hospital with him while sending Johnny and Gheorghe back to the farm to “see to the beasts.” That spell alone in the house becomes an interlude of easy domesticity and affection that further expands Johnny’s understanding of himself. But when his Nan makes it clear that Martin will not sufficiently recover to resume farm labor, the pressure causes Johnny to act out in damaging ways, putting everything he’s gained at risk.
In addition to the very fine work from O’Connor and Secareanu that anchors the drama, stage and screen veteran Jones brings quiet complexity to a role in which silences count as much as words, while an almost unrecognizable Hart gives a moving performance as a hardened man who shows surprising reserves of sensitivity when it most counts. Scenes late in the film in which Johnny takes a more active role in his father’s care are among the most affecting moments, albeit while never surrendering director Lee’s defining restraint.
That characteristic extends to the sparing use of music, from ambient duo Dustin O’Halloran and Adam Wiltzie, who record as A Winged Victory for the Sullen; and to the muted color palette and elegant framing of Richards’ cinematography. God’s Own Country announces Lee as an assured new voice, his own personal ties to the setting reinforced in gorgeous colorized vintage farm footage over the end credits.
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (World Dramatic)
Cast: Josh O’Connor, Alec Secareanu, Gemma Jones, Ian Hart, Harry Lister Smith, Patsy Ferran, Melanie Kilburn, Liam Thomas
Production companies: Shudder Films, Inflammable Films
Director-screenwriter: Francis Lee
Producers: Manon Ardisson, Jack Tarling
Executive producers: Diarmid Scrimshaw, Anna Duffield, Mary Burke, Celine Haddad, Paul Webster, Cavan Ash, Richard Holmes
Director of photography: Joshua James Richards
Production designer: Stephane Collonge
Costume designer: Sian Jenkins
Music: A Winged Victory for the Sullen
Editor: Chris Wyatt
Casting: Shaheen Baig, Layla Merrick-Wolf
Sales: Cinetic Media, Protagonist Pictures
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